BEHIND THE COOKBOOK: LA VARENNE PRATIQUE

The Story of La Varenne Pratique

by Anne Willan

La Varenne Pratique is the biggest book I have ever written, running to 528 pages. The core of the book includes more than 600 recipes and 1,100 color pictures of cooking techniques ranging from how to slice, dice and chop an onion to the correct way to cut a chicken into 8 pieces for coq au vin. It was put together in the late 1980s and took two years to write. I was using cutting-edge technology, an early Sony desktop machine with a vertical screen the shape of a book page. I had simply to indicate what subjects were covered on the page; the actual layouts were for the book designer, a complex mix of text, captions, headers, subheads, technique sequences and mug shots of finished recipes. My job was to supply the text and recipes for the book, plus the images for the technique sequences. Images of the finished dishes were shot separately in London.

The project began in Washington DC, where my husband was working at the time. One wall of our railroad apartment was quickly lined with shelves of cookbooks. I tracked down an editorial trainee whose mother ran a publishing company in London, so she already knew the ropes. Our chief recipe-tester was a Paris-trained chef, thus the core team was assembled. During the following months, we established the text, consisting of factual introductions and sidebars, with the full story told by hundreds and hundreds of captions. The chef tested at least a couple of hundred recipes before we were ready for the next stage.  

For shooting the technique sequences, we moved to France where I was running La Varenne Cooking School in Paris and thus had access to our teaching chefs and also the trainees from all over the world who had come to learn French cooking at the source. Our chef de cuisine was Claude Vauguet, a handsome man in his forties, who was endlessly good-natured and cheerful with, most importantly, plain strong hands that fell effortlessly into the right angles for the hundreds of technique shots. The only preparation that flummoxed him was extracting the blade from cuttlefish, and for that we were able to consult our Portuguese dishwasher.

To have housed the chef and half a dozen trainees in central Paris would have been hopelessly uneconomic, so for weeks at a time we settled on our newly acquired but rustic country property an hour away in Burgundy, a seventeenth-century château. Bathrooms might be scarce but there were plenty of bedrooms and the light in the north-facing kitchen was perfect for photography. Vegetables and fruits were to hand in the walled potager garden out the back door. Trainees worked in shifts, starting at 7.00 a.m. with a visit to the local bakery for the 10 daily baguettes that fired our efforts. The day ended after we had dined on everything left over from the daily shooting schedule – the Fish and Shellfish chapter was a high point, Offal was a low. By the end, no one could face another Chocolate Truffle, though we never forgot the Rum top of fresh fruits preserved in alcohol, displayed in a vast glass tub on the mantelpiece in the kitchen. Neither fruits nor alcohol survived the final night’s shoot. Salud!

After being written in the USA and photographed in France, the bookwas first published in the UK as Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Cookery before being re-christened La Varenne Pratique for its American debut; it went on to a dozen languages and sold more than 500,000 copies. While no longer in print, hard copies are scarce and treasured commodities, but you can purchase it as an e-book in four parts. To anyone who went to La Varenne Cooking School, and to many chefs and cooks who did not, it was called the bible. It remains one of the most comprehensive and visual books ever published on how to cook pretty much everything.

https://www.ckbk.com/

Mather Telephone Topic Event

On Tuesday 8th September, Anne Willan will be taking part in a Mather Telephone Topic, at 7:30 a.m. PT / 9:30 a.m. CT / 10:30 a.m. ET
Anne Willan is the founder of École de Cuisine La Varenne, one of the most famous cooking schools in the world. Considered by many as the English version of Julia Child, Anne is the author of popular cookbooks, including her latest, Women in the Kitchen, which traces the origins of American cooking through profiles of 12 essential women cookbook writers. She joins us live from England to talk about the book and about her life and career in food.
There are two ways to join the call:
Call-in number: (855) 880.1246 or join us online: zoom.us/join
Enter Meeting ID: 386 399 7030

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The Getty Museum Zoom Event

Join Anne Willan for a presentation about her new book, Women in the Kitchen.

Event to take place on Saturday 26th September at 10 am PT

More details to follow.

 

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Women in the Kitchen

(Scribner August 2020)

Culinary historian Anne Willan traces the origins of American cooking through profiles of twelve essential women cookbook writers—from Hannah Woolley in the mid-1600s to Fannie Farmer, Julia Child, and Alice Waters—highlighting their key historical contributions and most representative recipes.

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Women in the Kitchen: Culinary Historians Los Angeles

In this chat with Nancy Zaslavsky and in her latest book, Women in the Kitchen, Anne Willan focuses on twelve women cookbook writers beginning with two of the earliest to be published, both are English. Anne then traces the development of home cooking in America from colonial days to the transformative books of Julia Child, Marcella Hazan and then Alice Waters whose adamant use of local produce takes us into the modern food revolution.

Photo by Orlando Gili

Anne explains why she chose these twelve women cookbook writers who defined the way we eat from 1661 to today. She connects the influences of each woman in her respective era as well as how she stands on the shoulders of the one who came before. Anne tells us why these writers profoundly shaped domestic cooking, how their books stand out as iconic, and how they, one by one, helped align the way Americans cook and eat today.

Anne Willan has more than 50 years of experience as a cooking teacher, author, and culinary historian. The founder of famed French cooking school La VarenneAnne was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Hall of Fame for her “body of work” in May, 2013. She has also received the International Association of Culinary Professionals Lifetime Achievement Award, multiple James Beard Foundation Awards for her cookbooks, and was named Bon Appétit magazine’s Cooking Teacher of the Year in 2000. In July 2014, Anne was awarded the rank of Chevalier of the French the Légion d’Honneur for her accomplishments in promoting the gastronomy of France. Her more than 30 books include La Varenne Pratique, (1989); The Country Cooking of France, (2007); and The Cookbook Library, (2012).

Held on Saturday 12th September at 10.30AM PST

Location & Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/online-culinary-history-program-anne-willan-on-women-in-the-kitchen-tickets-118663296113?aff=ebdssbonlinesearch

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THE TREASURES OF BOROUGH MARKET

A few weeks ago I was treated to a tour of London’s Borough Market, a covered market of over 100 pitches, including a few permanent stores, all devoted to the very best of produce, artisan food and cooking. A market on the same site dates back to medieval times and beyond. My guides were experts, David Matchett, head of Food Policy and Development for the Market, and Ellie Costigan, sub-editor of the Market Life bi-monthly magazine.

London was quiet, this was August and the locals had wisely fled on holiday to sunnier beaches. All the more space for us to view the treasures on offer. First stop was a brisk reviver of black americano at the landmark Monmouth Coffee Shop, no wonder a queue was already snaking out into the street. I was parked at an outside table  for a friendly photo with the Borough Market banner in the background overhead.

First stop in the market was at Neal’s Yard Dairy, where I was able to indulge my passion for cheese to my heart’s content, focusing on the relatively new English cheeses, which are treasure trove for me. We launched into Bath Soft Cheese with a delicious bloomy rind, then on to Little Rollright, its soft paste enclosed in a band of spruce wood. We closed out with a firm, mature Lancashire, a deep-flavored winner that I was forced to admit, despite my genetic ancestry from Wensleydale, just over the border into Yorkshire.

Next stop was at the baking school, Bake Ahead, where we were instantly drawn in by the yeasty waft of baking bread. So much yeast is circulating in the air that starters for raising the various bread doughs take off in record time. Matthew Jones, head baker and owner, showed us the commercial mixers with their waist-high vats for mixing and kneading the dough, with behind them the commercial floor-to-ceiling ovens equipped with vents of steam to ensure a crisp brown crust on the loaves, some dark with rye or dotted with a snowy oatmeal finish.

My assistant Ali grabs an armful of loaves in a multitude of shapes to take home. Upstairs we see the baking school, where classes are held for both professional and home students. This morning pizza is on the menu and I watch a bemused housewife lifting her floppy ball of dough, trying in vain to replicate the even round that looks so easy in practiced hands at the local pizzeria. I must mention the delicious lunch that David assembled: cheeses, early plums, some very English homemade crackers, from the Cracker Kitchen and an English sparkling white wine that was surprisingly good with the Bath soft cheese and Moorhayes butter.

I pause for a quick sniff of fresh summer truffles, stopping at a glass jar with the sign “smell me!”  Last port of call is back near the coffee shop where I had spotted the largest oysters ever, at least 6 inches from hinge to tip. I imagined they were inedible and just for show, but no. To prove it I was handed a giant open shell, given a wedge of lemon with a knife and fork and challenged to the attack. The invigorating, salty tang comes back to me now as I sit at my prosaic grey screen, an invitation to a rapid return in search of more treasures. Very soon, I promise myself! In the autumn there will be more, and very different temptations.

If you are planning a trip to London, Borough Market is a great place to visit, please click the link to begin your culinary journey: http://boroughmarket.org.uk/

 

The Oxford Symposium On Food And Power 2019

Early in July, Todd and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Oxford Symposium, held at St. Catherine’s College, a short walk from the historic center of the city. Not by accident, we arrived just in time for lunch, a restorative medley of mezzes my favorite Middle Eastern dishes cooked by local experts with the backing of Chef Tim Kelsey and the St. Cat’s kitchen. Tim is amazing, each year welcoming exotic cooks to his kitchen, regarding them not as invaders but as inspiration for new ideas.

Later in the day I much enjoyed the witty exposure of Laura Shapiro, about gender and power in food, using Virginia Woolf’s descriptions from A Room of One’s Own as a prime example. Moving on halfway around the world, who would have thought that Japanese sake was originally brewed within the household by women (disclosed by Voltaire Cang, the specialist researcher for a social education research institute in Japan). Across another ocean were the Eaton Sisters of New York, they had little to do with food but very much with power. The day closed with a Greek dinner inspired by author Aglaia Kremezi and Chef Michael Costa of Zaytina, the cooking was washed down with zesty white wines from the Austrian Tyrol.

Menu 1: The Hubb Community Kitchen, The Healing Power of Cooking Together

Am I the only traveler who avoids hearty breakfast in favor of weak tea brewed in my bedroom and a couple of shortbread fingers that I carry everywhere with me? At the Symposium this habit enabled me to grab a front row seat for the best plenary session of the weekend, architect and historian, Carolyn Steel’s A Tale of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Political Power of Food. This turned out to be a fascinating discussion of the placement of major cities, their need for food and thus for nearby fertile land – Paris and London are contrast examples, London on the river had a fluid system without shortages, inland Paris was plagued by strikes and difficulties. Cities blessed by good transport links, most often over water, such as Rome and Stockholm, had the best ability to grow large as had access to fertile land thousands of miles away. The port cities – Ostia, Leith, Alexandria — such cities became powers in themselves.

Menu 2: The Power of Frugal Greek Cookery

Equally enjoyable for me was the lecture by Michael Krondl on Sugar and Show: Power, Conspicuous Display and Sweet Banquets During King Henri III’s Visit to Venice in 1547. The array of goblets, flowers, sculptures and portraits, all created in sugar paste dazzled, both literally and figuratively.  I worked once with a pastry chef who had created similar marvels for the Elysée Palace in Paris and the designs and their construction have not changed in 500 years. They are sturdy but brittle, though quite easy to repair with cement of sticky sugar syrup. The main enemy is humidity, a wet day brings a

Menu 3: Borough Market, With her hands

weepy end.

The take-away of the Symposium is its value as an exchange of scholarly ideas in the food world, it was terrific to see the large number of young food scholars attending and providing high quality presentations of their research alongside masters like Marion Nestle, and Cathy Kaufman. As we said goodbye to the Symposium chairman, Elizabeth Luard, the closeout was far from sad. After a last sustaining lunch, we departed with cheery smiles and promises to “see you next year”, when the theme will be herbs and spices, stimulating food for thought.

 

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